Detainees Equal Dollars


It was a shaky spring for the correctional workers of Hastings, Nebraska (pop. 24,064), as the stagnation in the nation’s prison population and the increasingly high costs of incarceration jostled the sleepy town, some two hours’ drive from Lincoln. On April 9, the 84 employees of the Hastings Correctional Center were told that the 186-bed facility would be closing at the end of June. State funds were scraping bottom, and the $2.5 million annual price tag for the prison was too big a burden to carry. “We really didn’t know what we would do,” says Jim Morgan, who had been working at HCC for 15 years and lives to this day in the house where he was born. “There aren’t a lot of job opportunities out here, and most of us have homes and kids and couldn’t even think about moving somewhere else.” For two months, the workers scrambled, filling out applications at nearby meatpacking and cardboard-container plants and anticipating long hours in the unemployment office.

Then salvation came from, of all places, the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Days after HCC closed as a state prison in June, it reopened as an INS detention center.

“It’s a win-win,” says Morgan. The INS is desperate for more beds for its ever expanding detainee population. And the state of Nebraska, collecting $65 per detainee per day from the INS, rakes in more than $1 million a year over and above the cost of running the place.

County jailers have long known that housing INS detainees pumps easy income into the coffers. Nearly 900 facilities around the country provide beds for the INS, and in interviews over the years, several county sheriffs and wardens have described such detainees as a “cash crop.”

Passaic County Jail in New Jersey learned the lucrative lesson after 9-11, as INS transfers boosted its detainee population from 40 to 386 by December 18. The INS paid $77 per day per detainee, compared to New Jersey reimbursements of $62 for state prisoners; some $3 million in INS payments poured into Passaic last year.

Now, in places like Hastings all around the country, prisons are seeking to cut such deals on a larger scale. At the end of July the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a decline in the state prison population, reversing a decade-long trend that produced a prison-building boom across America. The only incarcerated populations sustaining reliable growth now are INS detainees and federal prisoners, many of them noncitizens. Those with an interest in keeping multitudes behind bars—whether public employees working in the prisons that expanded in the ’90s, or for-profit companies that have seen their stock prices plunge in the last couple of years—are coming to regard immigrants as their redeemers.

Like agriculture, restaurants, hotels, and other realms of American business, the prison-industrial complex now also looks to illegal immigrants as the most promising means of keeping them afloat. The danger, anti-prison activists say, is that the pressure to fill empty cells will add even more fuel to the demand to round up immigrants.

As for the workers in Hastings, “We’re sitting back smiling,” says Morgan. “Nebraska is still going through a crunch, but they can’t touch us. We’re all federal dollars now. Congress would have to do something very big to affect our jobs—and it’s not like they’re going to give amnesty to everyone.”

Immigrant Incarceration Booms

Quite the contrary. The number of INS detainees—people being held administratively as they await the outcome of deportation proceedings—tripled since 1994, from an average daily population of 5532 to nearly 20,000 last year. Some have been apprehended at the border, others nabbed for staying in the country without documents, and still others have completed prison sentences for crimes that have made them deportable. On any given day, the INS holds about 4500 of them in facilities the agency runs itself, while some 2000—many of them asylum seekers—languish in private lockups under contract with the INS. Some 10,000 are farmed out to county and state prisons. For the INS, that’s still not enough. The proposed $6.3 billion budget for fiscal 2003 slates more than $50 million for the “construction of detention facilities.”

At the same time, the number of noncitizen inmates in federal prisons doing time for the crime of breaking immigration laws has skyrocketed as U.S. Attorneys have zealously gone after illegal border crossers they once sent right into deportation proceedings. Last week the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that the number of people prosecuted for immigration offenses in federal courts more than doubled from 1996 to 2000, growing from 6605 defendants to 15,613.

For both detainees and noncitizen inmates, the swelling numbers can be traced to the draconian 1996 reforms in immigration law, which expanded the scope of crimes considered deportable offenses, made detention mandatory for almost all people facing deportation, and increased the number of Border Patrol officers apprehending illegal entrants, especially in the Southwest. Meanwhile, changes in federal sentencing law increased the length of prison sentences for immigration offenses. Between 1986 and 2000, that average increased from 3.6 months to roughly 21 months.

Attorney Andrea Matheson, who recently finished a four-year stint as a federal public defender in Tucson, Arizona, saw hundreds of Mexicans put away in federal prisons for trying to re-enter the U.S.—whether to seek work or to reunite with their families—after having previously been tossed back across the border. She sums up how the system works: “The government spends a fortune guarding the border. Then it spends another fortune catching the people who make it across. Once it has them, it spends yet another fortune prosecuting them, including for lawyers to defend them and all the machinery of the court system. Another fortune goes to keeping them in prison. And after all this, the government puts them in deportation proceedings so the INS can spend its own fortune on sending them back. In the end, many of them just come over again.”

Among the 500 cases she defended each year, Matheson had many repeat clients—one of them tried his luck 42 times. The Justice Department gets fed up with the scofflaws, she says, and imposes increasingly harsh sentences for “felony re-entry”—which can amount to as much as 10 years. Someone who re-enters illegally who once committed a crime in the U.S.—no matter how many years before, no matter how minor, no matter that he or she completed a sentence for it—can also be looking at a hugely enhanced sentence.

The security fervor that has swept over the country since September has only accelerated the upward arc in the numbers. The general lack of public outcry against the post-9-11 sweeps, along with Attorney General Ashcroft’s promise to hunt down and deport hundreds of thousands of “absconders”—people who have not responded to final orders of deportation—and to prosecute millions of immigrants and visitors who fail to report address changes to the INS, could send the numbers of arrests into the stratosphere.

Longtime anti-prison activists see some scary writing on the wall. “The lesson of the drug war was that it didn’t make sense to lock people up for everything—it wasn’t necessarily good for them or for society,” says Kevin Pranis, an organizer with Not With Our Money, the national network resisting prison profiteering. “But a policy argument didn’t get through to anyone as long as you had prison capacity and pressure to keep it filled. Immigrant activists have to start organizing not just around the injustice of detention, but also to reduce capacity.” Otherwise, as one incarceration boom trails off, another will be in line to take its place.

Private Prison Bonanza

That’s certainly how executives in the for-profit prison business are reading the situation. Take Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, which has touted itself as “the global leader in privatized corrections” (one of its subsidiaries runs the notorious detention camp in Woomera, Australia, where asylum seekers have staged hunger strikes, and suicide attempts are frequent). In a public quarterly conference call between executives and investment analysts earlier this month, CEO George Zoley enthused about opportunities for growth in the U.S., citing the government’s plans “to build up the country’s capacity for detaining illegal immigration at a number of locations throughout the country.”

Steve Logan, CEO of Cornell Companies, which operates the country’s largest private prison (a 2454-bed complex in Texas), was just as blunt when speaking with his colleagues last winter. “The federal business is the best business for us,” he said, and the events of September 11 are “increasing that level of business.” He exulted over the high numbers of Middle Easterners in the U.S. and their “being targeted.”

Executives in the industry are also quick to point out—as Zoley boasts—”that it was really the INS that started privatized corrections in this country.” Wackenhut established its first facility in the mid ’80s—a minimum-security undocumented-alien detention center in Colorado. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the U.S.’s most aggressive pioneer in the field, got its start the same way, housing undocumented Latin Americans in a similar center in Texas.

Presenting themselves as a solution to overcrowding in jails bulging with drug offenders serving increasingly strict sentences, CCA, Wackenhut, and others promised to build prisons faster and to run them more cheaply than the state could. Contracts poured in. CCA’s revenues leaped from $14 million in 1986 to $120 million in 1994, while Wackenhut’s climbed from $19 million in 1989 to $84 million in 1994. But by the late ’90s, the flaws that anti-privatization activists had long decried began to glare. In 1996 a General Accounting Office survey concluded that private prisons were no more economical than public ones.

Meanwhile, scandals such as prisoner escapes, abuses by guards, inmate riots over substandard conditions (including an infamous 1995 tear-up at an INS facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, then under contract to Esmor) further tainted the industry. By the turn of the new century, states began to cancel some contracts. In September 2000, Business Week proclaimed that “the industry’s heyday may already be history.” CCA stock lost 93 percent of its value that year.

But in what criminal-justice policy analyst Judith Greene calls “an astonishing bailout” the feds stepped in, seeking more beds for their own growing inmate population—which hit 127,000 last year. As in the states, the majority of federal prisoners are drug offenders; but more than 35,000 of the total are “criminal aliens”—that is, noncitizens who have been convicted of crimes (including immigration crimes). In a comprehensive article published in The American Prospect early last September, Greene detailed Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) calls for contractors to build facilities specifically to meet its “criminal alien requirements” (CAR). The FBOP put out a series of requests for proposals between 1999 and 2000, soliciting up to 10,000 beds in CAR contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. For CCA and the like, the opportunity was a godsend.

As Greene explains, FBOP officials figured that despite their checkered history, for-profit companies could handle special noncitizen facilities—after all, most immigrant inmates are nonviolent and can be housed in low-security, dorm-like settings. Besides, the officials reason, as inmates on their way to deportation after doing their time, they don’t need rehab and other special programs. Greene calls this logic “not far from acknowledging that they think they can get away with providing second-class prisons for these second-class prisoners.” It also didn’t hurt that the industry is filled with executives who once served high up in the FBOP—or that between 1995 and 2000, according to the Center for Responsible Politics, private prison companies made more than $528,000 in federal campaign contributions, much of it in soft money.

Under the first CAR contract, CCA turned an albatross into a cash cow as the feds signed up its prison in California City, which CCA had built on spec for $106 million in 1998—and which then sat empty as California’s prison population stalled and local prison guard unions campaigned against it. Most astonishing, the FBOP promised CCA a 95 percent occupancy rate—meaning the federal government would pay for 95 percent of the bed capacity at all times, no matter how many were actually in use.

But late in 2001, the FBOP put its new solicitations on hold, awarding only one of five promised CAR contracts this year. Greene suggests that the feds pulled back as they began to consider that the growth in their own populations could slow down. The dust will have to settle on the reorganization of agencies into a Department of Homeland Security before the government can shape its future detention priorities.

For their part, private prison execs are watching the reorganization debates with heady anticipation; they have reported government insiders encouraging them to hang onto the sites they made ready for the CAR solicitations—especially those in border states.

After all, in a February conference call, Wackenhut’s Zoley declared it “almost an oddity” that “given the size of our country and the number of illegal immigrants entering into our country that we have such a small number of beds for detention purposes.” He added, “This has become an issue under the homeland security theme, and I think it’s likely we are going to see an increase in that area.” Indeed, the government recently centralized all immigrant detention functions into the new post of detention trustee—and hired a former Bureau of Prisons procurement officer, Craig Unger, to fill it. The proposed budget tosses Unger $615 million for contracting out immigrant detention beds.

Bidding Wars

Advocates are watching uneasily as the government increasingly courts the private prison operators. They worry about bidding wars among potential jailers, who might be willing to further cut services to detainees in exchange for contracts. Many state and local providers, the advocates charge, already fail to meet the INS’s own weak detention standards.

“We have already seen how destructively the profit motive can undermine justice,” says Matt Wilch, director of asylum and immigration concerns at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “We’ve seen that trying to keep costs low means setting up in isolated, rural areas, far from attorneys and support networks; avoiding expenses for special medical or dietary needs; attracting low-wage employees who aren’t sufficiently professional.”

But jailers who have seen a steady rise in their immigrant populations in recent years are confident the flow will continue to increase—so confident that they’ve already shrugged off demands to offer bargain rates.

In York, Pennsylvania, for instance, where the county correctional facility holds the country’s largest INS population—some 750 to 800 on any given day—the government has already demanded a price-slashing. A report last year by the Office of the Inspector General alleged that York was overestimating its costs and challenged its charge of $60 per detainee per day. The IG thinks $39 a day would be fair. “Let them put it all out to a bid,” says warden Tom Hogan. “Nobody can compete with us.”

York caught the immigrant detention wave back in 1993, when hundreds of undocumented Chinese men and women washed ashore in the Golden Venture, and the INS wanted to keep them all in close proximity, since they all had similar cases. York had just completed an expansion and happily took them in—along with the INS’s lucre, which, county officials boasted, helped keep property taxes down. Since then, it has deliberately enlarged its capacity for INS detainees, completing a new $20 million wing in 1999 for the purpose.

“The IG is of the opinion that we should provide this service for free,” chides Hogan. He’d like to work things out, but is willing to call the agency’s bluff. “We’ll get out of the business if we have to,” he says. “The INS can find someplace else to put our 800 detainees.”